Orpheum Theatre

A lithographic postcard of the Orpheum Theatre made shortly after its opening in 1910. (Image: Zenith City Press)

8–12  2nd Avenue East | Architect: J. E. O. Pridemore | Built: 1910 | Lost: 1939 (façade extant)

In 1912 Duluth businessman Guilford Hartley purchased the Temple Opera Block and the site of the Temple Opera House. He also purchased the block of property east of the Temple Opera Block, from 207 to 213 East Superior Street.

On the site of the old Temple Opera House Hartley built the Orpheum Theatre. On the outside the building’s only architectural interest was its Neoclassical façade along Second Avenue East, with its awning of ornamental iron covering the entrance. Inside it was opulent. Patrons entered upon a marble-tiled floor, and marble staircases with ornamental iron railings led them to their auditorium seats. The auditorium itself held two balconies and ten private boxes. The seats were built of mahogany and upholstered with silk velour. It was one of the first theaters to utilize cantilever construction, allowing the auditorium to stand free of visible support columns, ensuring every seat in the house had a clear view of the stage.

On his Superior Street property Hartley built the Orpheum Garage. The Garage adjoined the theater; it operated as a parking garage and included offices for the Orpheum. Like the Opera House, the Orpheum included a small art gallery, with an entrance at the lower left corner of the building. The sign above the entrance advertises the Orpheum Garage’s services: welding, washing, and greasing.

The Duluth Herald reported that on opening night, August 22, 1912, “the audience filled every seat from boxes to gallery. It came with a rush, flooding the street for a block on either side lined with autos. All of social Duluth was there…. The spirit of freedom was infectious, all were there for enjoyment of the splendor of the theater in every detail and the completeness of its appointment brought a feeling of satisfaction that let loose the floodlights of appreciation.” The theater’s manager claimed Duluth’s audience “is more metropolitan than any I have seen outside of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.”

Mayor Marcus Cullum addressed the audience, told them they were “looking swell,” and gave a short speech that included the following remark:

“It takes confidence as well as money to build such a house as this and it does Mr. Hartley credit and shows his confidence in the future of Duluth. High class vaudeville is as essential in metropolitan life as street cars and automobiles. No city can pretend to verge upon the metropolitan until it can claim such a line of amusement features as the Orpheum provides.”

The Orpheum was, until about 1925, Duluth’s premier vaudeville stage, competing only with the Lyceum Theatre for quality acts. As a member of the nationwide Orpheum Theatre circuit, Duluth’s Orpheum was all but guaranteed to book the nation’s  finest talent. Mary Pickford, W. C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, and a young Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogan all graced the Orpheum’s stage; Al Jolson played there as well, in blackface.

But in the 1920s the popularity of talking motion pictures began killing vaudeville. When Guilford Hartley died in 1922 the buildings became the possession of the Hartley Company and later the Hartley Family Trust. In 1929 the Orpheum added movie equipment. That same year its main entry was moved to 207 East Superior Street, the first bay of the Orpheum Garage. The Second Avenue awning was also relocated to Superior Street at that time and a large vertical sign for the Orpheum was attached to the Temple Opera Block. It was managed by the same company that ran Duluth’s Garrick Theatre.

But those changes weren’t enough to keep the grand vaudeville theater lucrative, especially since many movie houses had popped up in downtown Duluth by then. From 1934 to 1939, the theater was closed except for a few sporadic attempts to make it work once again as a venue for live theater and movies. In 1939 the building was gutted and, along with portions of the Orpheum Garage, transformed into the NorShor Theatre and the NorShor Annex.